By four o’clock on October 8, 1913, every seat in the Memorial Art Gallery’s Hall of Casts had been taken as Rush Rhees, president of the University of Rochester and of the Gallery’s Board of Managers, rose to begin dedication ceremonies.
The Italian Renaissance style building, by the New York firm of Foster, Gade and Graham, represented the culmination of years of effort by local artists, collectors and philanthropists. It was Emily Sibley Watson, daughter of industrialist Hiram Sibley, who donated the building in memory of her architect son, James G. Averell, with the proviso that it be maintained as “a means alike of pleasure and of education for all the citizens of Rochester.” The appointment of George L. Herdle, painter and president of the Rochester Art Club, as the first director further underscored the Gallery’s ties with the community.
Following George Herdle’s untimely death in 1922, his daughter Gertrude, who had served as his education assistant, succeeded him for the next 40 years. She became the youngest member of the Association of Art Museum Directors and one of only three woman women directors in the country. Ten years later, her sister Isabel joined the Gallery after postgraduate training at the Fogg Museum and served as assistant director, also for 40 years. In large part through their efforts, the collection would grow from “five paintings, two plaster casts and a lappet of lace” to what an eminent art critic later called “the best balanced of any museum in the state outside of metropolitan New York City.”
By 1926, the Gallery had outgrown its original quarters. A new wing designed by McKim, Mead & White doubled the original 14,000 square feet and added such features as a central Fountain Court, a children’s museum and an auditorium.
A 1968 addition, an International Modern structure by Waasdorp, Northrup and Kaelber, again doubled the Gallery’s space, while moving the entrance to the rear. It was designed to harmonize with the existing museum and the neo Gothic Cutler Union next door. Built as a women’s student union on UR’s original Prince Street campus, Cutler Union had been given to the Eastman School of Music in 1955, and its basement now housed the Gallery’s Creative Workshop, which had been offering art classes since the 1920s.
With the completion of a successful capital Campaign for the Eighties, the Gallery broke ground in 1986 for a third addition, which would include a 12,000-square-foot entrance pavilion and enclosed, skylit sculpture garden designed by Rochester architect Frank S. Grosso. The new building linked the Gallery and Cutler Union, which now housed MAG’s administrative offices and a restaurant.
“We enter a new era in the Gallery’s history, with a full appreciation of past accomplishments,” said Grant Holcomb, who joined MAG in 1985 as its sixth director. “Like our predecessors, we realize that we must preserve the creative heritage of mankind while stimulating the sense of curiosity, wonder and delight in each Gallery visitor. The opportunities and the challenges are many.”
In 2012, portions of the Gallery's fence were removed or relocated to open up the grounds and welcome visitors to the Centennial Sculpture Park.
In 2014, Jonathan P. Binstock joined MAG as its seventh director. One of his first initiatives was a reinstallation of the contemporary art collection.